Remembering the Florida panther's champion
Dave was a gung-ho wildlife biologist, and he was always tracking something. I'd met him more than 20 years earlier, when he was catching panthers in the Everglades and collaring them with radio transmitters.
Now Dave was doing the same thing with Florida black bears, mapping their movements with the goal of protecting the species by preserving its native territory.
He'd bait the traps with doughnuts, which bears evidently cannot resist. He e-mailed photos of a young male that had figured out how to pilfer the pastries without tripping the trap. Dave admired the animal's ingenuity, but he was determined to outwit him.
I couldn't join Dave on that trip, so I didn't get a chance to speak with him again. He died on June 20 in a plane crash near Lake Placid. He was only 52.
Dave and a friend, grove owner Mason Smoak, had been tracking bears from the air, following signals transmitted from the collars. The accident wasn't a major news story outside of Lake Placid and Lexington, Ky., where Dave was a professor of conservation biology at the University of Kentucky.
Still, everyone who loves Florida should know about him. This is especially true in the celebratory afterglow of last week's startling announcement that the state intends to buy out U.S. Sugar and reclaim more than 100,000 acres of cane fields for Everglades restoration.
No one did more than Dave Maehr to save the the Everglades' most iconic inhabitant, the panther.
For 14 years he was employed by what was then called the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. He laid eyes on his first panther in January 1986 -- at the time, no more than 30 were thought to be alive.
Little was known about the remaining cats, and many experts believed that the species would be extinct before the turn of the century. Dave was determined to prove them wrong.
''The animal is not a biological lost cause,'' he later wrote.
Dave believed that habitat loss was the prime threat, and he began working closely with ranchers and farmers on whose lands the panthers often roamed.
He and his recovery team tracked and collared more big cats than anyone knew existed, over at least three generations. The radio telemetry and capture data provided important and surprising clues about the panther's vast range, its breeding habits, diet, mortality and adaptation to human encroachment.
Gradually, a rich and detailed picture emerged of a creature so elusive and enigmatic that very few Floridians have ever seen one in the wild. I saw my first with Dave Maehr at my side.
Over time, he became the preeminent authority on panthers, writing or co-writing more than 20 scientific papers and a book that's still considered the definitive text: The Florida Panther: Life and Death of a Vanishing Carnivore.
He also ticked off some people. When reporters asked a question, he'd answer bluntly and with little regard for what his bosses might think. He was perpetually exasperated by the lead-footed bureaucracy of wildlife management, and he'd say so.
Dave didn't care about diplomacy. He cared only about saving the panther.
When Texas cougars were imported to breed with their Florida cousins, Dave wasn't shy about stating his misgivings. Such outspokenness didn't endear him to his superiors, and he eventually left the game commission.
(Introducing the cougars has reduced inbreeding and appears to have enhanced the survival rate of panther kittens, though the program remains controversial.)
For a short time Dave worked as a private environmental consultant and got slammed by former colleagues when he supported a development proposal near Naples. He was stung by the reaction to his findings and to the end insisted that his science had been sound, that the project wouldn't have harmed the panther population.
Dave returned to the academic world, got his doctorate and settled at the University of Kentucky. (The school has set up a David S. Maehr Memorial Fund, at www.cauky.edu/forestry/. All donations will go toward wildlife conservation projects).
Over the past year I'd been researching a children's novel set in the Big Cypress, and bugging Dave with questions about tracking panthers. He was patient, helpful and droll as always.
''I know this is going to sound strange,'' I said during one conversation, ``but what does panther poop look like?''
He gave me a clinical yet vivid description, adding that the odor was spectacularly vile. ''Be sure to put that in your book,'' he told me.
Dave leaves behind his wife, Diane; two grown children, Erin and Clifton; his parents, a sister and two brothers, along with scores of admiring colleagues and grad students.
He also leaves behind 80 to 100 wild Florida panthers, possibly more. The cats are still seriously endangered, but they're hanging on longer and in larger numbers than anyone had foreseen 20 years ago.
Who knows how few -- if any -- would still be left, if not for the extraordinary efforts of Dave Maehr and those who've followed him on the trails.